The Backyard Traveler: Oregon's OMSI is an awesome place

Earlier this year, my family and I were in Portland and chanced upon the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. We discovered that despite a stuffy-sounding name, OMSI, as its known, is a blast.

The museum is a first class, truly hands-on museum that manages to entertain while educating -something that not all museums can do well.

In addition to five exhibit halls spread over more than 200,000 square feet and filled with hundreds of interactive displays, the museum boasts an OMNIMAX theater, a planetarium, a motion simulator ride and its own full size submarine.

The museuk traces it origins to 1944, when it was founded in a house by Dr. John C. Stevens, a Portland Civil Engineer. In 1992, the current facility was opened on the site of an historic power station (part of the plant has been incorporated into the museum) on the banks of the Willamette River.

The museum is divided into four permanent halls; Earth Science, Life Science, Physical Science, and High Tech, with the changing exhibits hall devoted to touring exhibits from around the country.

Turbine Hall, housed in the Portland General Electric building, constructed in 1910, is home of the Physical Science displays. My children were fascinated by an exhibit devoted to water power that involved filling a plastic bottle with sufficient water pressure that it explodes into the air.

The hall also had a Laser Lab, where you can watch and play with laser-light-show effects, and a Chemistry Lab -where my son was able to heat various types of metal wires to see what color each produces when it burns.

Adjacent to Turbine Hall is the Discovery Space, a toddler area for newborn to six-year-olds that includes a climbing area, sandbox, reading corner and several reptiles and birds.

Turbine Hall connects to the two-story main museum structure. The first floor houses a cafe and well-stocked gift shop as well as the planetarium and OMNIMAX theaters. On the second floor are the Earth Science, Life Science, and High Tech Halls.

In the Earth Science area, you'll find dozens of exhibits including the Earthquake Room, a shaking platform that allows you to experience the sensation of being in a quake measuring 5.5 on the Richter scale.

Additionally, the Paleo Lab is a working science center where trained staff and volunteers excavate authentic fossils from plaster casts, while you watch and ask questions. In the Watershed Lab, you can play with a miniature stream, learning firsthand how flooding, soil erosion, rain and other natural and manmade events can affect an environment.

The Life Science Hall allows you to explore the workings of the human body. For instance the Bone Up On Bones exhibits show skeletal structures and how diet and other things can impact bone development.

One particularly interesting display here is Breaking Down Barriers: Technology for People with Disabilities, which invites you to experience the difficulties of performing ordinary daily tasks from the perspective of a disabled person.

The High Tech Hall was particularly popular with my computer savvy offspring. The Computer Lab featured a dozen or so computers connected to the Internet and loaded with demonstration software.

One of the highlights of our visit, however, was a tour of OMSI's USS Blueback, the museum's submarine, which is parked in the Willamette River. The Blueback was launched in 1959 and was the last non-nuclear sub built by the U.S. Navy (she has diesel-electric engines).

The Blueback was used by the Navy for three decades before being decommissioned and berthed at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington. In 1994, she was acquired by OMSI and opened to the public.

The Blueback is a bit of a celebrity. In 1961, she set a record by traveling 5,340 miles from Japan to San Diego entirely submerged. Additionally, she appeared in the film, "The Hunt for Red October," posing as a Russian submarine.

The Blueback tour takes you down the sub's bridge (the tower that is above the water) and deep into the ship's bowels. Along the way, you can play with the sub's periscopes and wander through its narrow hallways to the attack center and control room, crew quarters, engine room, sonar room, and other compartments.

The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry is open Tuesday through Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. From June to September, the museum is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Admission is $15 for adults for the full museum package (all exhibits, the OMNIMAX, Planetarium, Laser shows, and submarine tour), $11.50 for children 3-13, and free for those under 3.

Individual tickets for each attraction can also be purchased and range from $3 to $6.50. For information call (503) 797-4000 or log on at

Richard Moreno is the author of "The Backyard Traveler," "The Backyard Traveler Returns," and "The Roadside History of Nevada" which are available at local bookstores.


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